Winter Asian Games are very topical in tropical East Timor
SAPPORO, Japan (AP) For Alpine skier Yohan Goutt Goncalves, the chance to be East Timor's sole representative at the Asian Winter Games was too good to pass up, even if it meant missing the world championships.
Goutt Goncalves could have taken part in the Alpine skiing world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland but chose instead to travel to Japan to become East Timor's first athlete at the Asian Winter Games.
''It was more important to come here because East Timor is part of Asia,'' Goutt Goncalves said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. ''Timorese people feel closer to the Asian Games than any other event - even the Winter Olympics - so that's why I chose to come here.''
Born in France, the 22-year-old Goutt Goncalves is the son a French father and his mother is from East Timor, the tiny former Portuguese colony between Australia and Indonesia.
He qualified for the world circuit in 2013 and had no trouble deciding which country to represent when it came to choosing between France and East Timor.
East Timor's National Olympic Committee was only established in 2007, and two athletes have competed at the Summer Games in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
''My dream of representing Timor came when I was eight,'' Goutt Goncalves said. ''I wanted to go to the Olympics and I knew it was for Timor because I think it was important to show to the world that there is this country. I think that the contrast of having an athlete that skis but is from a country with no snow makes it special.''
Goutt Goncalves' childhood dream came true when he competed at the Sochi Olympics.
''It was so challenging to get there,'' Goutt Goncalves said, recalling his route to become the first athlete from East Timor to compete at the Winter Olympics. ''And when I arrived there you raise the flag of Timor in the opening ceremony. It's the first time in the Winter Olympics so there was a lot of attention on you because people are wondering `where is this country? Do they have snow? Do they have mountains?'''
Now he has his sights set on qualifying for an Olympic return, this time closer to home in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
''I want to participate in more international events so people get to know Timor better,'' Goutt Goncalves said.
Many of Goutt Goncalves' family members live in Australia, where he has based himself for southern hemisphere winter training the past several years.
Goutt Goncalves first hit the ski slopes in his father Pierre's backpack when he was a year old, and skied for the first time when he was three.
The country was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and East Timor declared its independence in 1975. Indonesia invaded East Timor within weeks and a violent period followed.
In 1999, following intervention from the United Nations, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and East Timor became a sovereign state on May 20, 2002. The country's political situation has become more stable in recent years.
''Right now it is pretty peaceful, the last civil war was in 2006,'' Goutt Goncalves said. ''Since then nothing major has happened so I hope tourists will come to Timor.''
In 1974, Goutt Goncalves' mother, Carolina, and her young siblings boarded a fishing boat in the capital Dili and set sail for Darwin, the remote capital of Australia's Northern Territory. Despite being overcrowded, the boat and its 500-plus passengers arrived safely, and the family was granted refugee status.
For now, Goutt Goncalves said he is happy to be able to take his campaign to raise awareness of his country to the slopes. He started competition in the giant slalom on Wednesday, and is entered for the slalom on Friday.
''My uncles that still live in Timor fought during the occupation,'' Goutt Goncalves said. ''They were present and in the resistance so I think in my own way I am fighting for my country in a more joyful way.''